Book promotion begins again this afternoon with a trip to chilly Minneapolis where I’ll be speaking at the University of Minnesota tomorrow as part of their Provost’s Conversation Series. I’ve been lax about updating my events page but there are a raft of appearances posted there now. Between now and June, I’ll be in Kelowna, Torbay, and all points in between, giving keynote addresses, speaking on panels, and running workshops so keep an eye on that events page because I love meeting readers.
Hello. It’s 2019. Is it passe to say Happy New Year?
It’s been radio silence here for the past four weeks because…drum roll…I’ve been writing! As in actual words and sentences and paragraphs and scenes and things that could possibly even be called CHAPTERS. Every time I manage to get words on a page it really does feel miraculous.
Today I was listening to the latest episode of the podcast Zig Zag. It’s about The Hype Cycle which is a graph created by tech analyst Jackie Fenn a quarter century ago. This graph was meant to describe new technology (ie. bitcoin, Twitter, push notifications) but it’s been borrowed by other fields and its basics are a helpful way to think of the writing process.
The Hype Cycle has five phases:
1. initial spark of innovation
2. peak of expectation
3. trough of disillusionment
4. slope of enlightenment
5. plateau of productivity
Every story begins with the first idea. It might not even be a very big idea but that match gets lit and it sets off a bonfire and you get so jazzed about writing this amazing thing.
That sets off phase two which is when you’re deep in the writing zone, churning out pages and pages and completely engaged with your project. It’s such a happy time, possibly the happiest time! At some point though you tumble into phase three, the pit of hell and despair. I have been thinking about the trough of disillusionment a lot because I know it is looming on my horizon but also because I’ve been evaluating manuscripts for other writers this month and I am always conscious of the need to balance critique and praise. My job is to question areas where I feel the draft is weak and offer suggestions for possible improvements. The risk is - especially with writers who I don’t know well or at all - that my comments will throw them into the trough and they won’t try to climb out.
Here’s the thing: the trough is a necessary part of the process. It’s like driving through the isthmus between St. John’s and Terra Nova National Park. Sometimes that damn isthmus is a death trap and the fog is low and there’s a horrible blizzard and you’re driving with zero visibility. But there’s literally no other way to get to the Park. You just have to white knuckle through it. The trough is the same. There’s no way to get to a better draft without seeing the flaws and feeling bad about them.
The trick is to keep calm and carry on. Don’t give up. And don’t deceive yourself into thinking the flaws aren’t there. Accept the flaws. Start trying to fix them. That’s phase four, the gradual work of revision and correction. And onward to the plateau of productivity. That initial hopeful burst doesn’t really come back. For one thing, after some time, the idea is no longer novel. But what you get instead in these last two stages is gradual improvement. Little by little. Until the end.
Sometimes you have to cycle through phases two and three several times while working on a single project. Dr. Math and I have this running joke in our house. He comes home from a day of research and I ask: “How was it?” If it’s been a good day he says: “I solved this lemma. I’m a genius!” But inevitably, the following day he’ll come home with a hang dog, downtrodden expression and tell me the breakthrough he made yesterday ended up only being a partial solution. Or he’s now discovered some other loose thread. Scientific research and fiction writing, if plotted on graphs would look much like the same rollercoaster. See the ride through to the end. That’s what I’m saying.
TWENTY EIGHTEEN! What a tornado of a year! In this, my debut year as an author, I have learned a good many lessons, many of them the hard way. So if you are an aspiring, emerging, or about-to-become debut author allow me to be of service.
Decide in advance what kind of public figure you will be. Will you be active on social media and if so, which platforms? Sage advice from my publicists: Do nothing that makes you uncomfortable. If you're going to spend your time on a platform, make sure it's one you enjoy. Keeping this website dynamic (ie. updated regularly) takes up more time than you might think. But does it bring me joy? You bet. So here we are.
Prioritize. I’m not on Twitter and I’m a middling instagrammer at best. Social media is not my priority and it shows. You know what's higher up on the food chain? Replying to reader email. I bet that shows too.
THE NEXT BOOK
Be head first into the second book before the first one comes out. You have no idea how well or poorly your published book will be received and it’s just psychologically helpful to already have a new imaginary world to keep you busy. And if you are lucky and up to your ears in book promotion, then it’s also helpful to have that new imaginary world where you can go to escape.
Don’t talk about it. “What are you working on now?” is a trick question. Don’t answer it.
Don’t marry your idea. Here’s something my editor (who has 20+ years of experience) told me: lots of writers have an idea for the second book long before the first one is done. And then they get attached to the idea and stick with it even when it isn’t working out. And thus you have the curse of the sophomore novel. If something isn’t working, let it go.
The numbers will rob you of all sanity. Sales figures, royalty statements, number of GoodReads reviews, the bestseller list… these are not metrics; they are torture devices. Even when the numbers are good, a tiny devil in the back of your head will whisper: “just means you have further to fall.” Personally my advice is to ignore the numbers as much as possible. Does your publishing house have an author portal where you can track your sales? Good for them. Stay off it.
If you have an agent, ask them to send you a head’s up text about the royalty statement before it lands in your in-box like an undetonated grenade. Also, there is no law that says you have to read the detailed sales breakdown.
Guess what? You don't have to read reviews!
It's helpful to have a policy. Will you read any? Which ones? I screwed up my courage and read the major ones (while grimacing with one eye closed). But for me, GoodReads is haram. Ditto Amazon and Chapters. Several months ago, I stopped reading reviews altogether, including the ones I'm tagged in on Instagram. It's not that I've had a lot of bad reviews (just the opposite), it's that I find reviews incredibly stressful and I maxed out on overall stress around mid-May.
Finally, remember that those cranky reviewers can go fuck themselves.
Sign up for airplane rewards.
Invest in a pair of compression socks.
Often you get picked up at the airport and driven for hours to an event and there's no time to stop and get anything to eat. So here's a tip Kathleen Winter gave me: always travel with food.
Also (and I’ve learned this the hard way), close your eyes and sleep (or pretend to sleep) on those drives.
Take it from a former Catholic school girl: a work uniform is a life saver. Early in the year, I got a few dresses together. They pack light, straddle a couple of seasons, don't need to be ironed, and pair with the same three pairs of shoes.
Honour the Sabbath. The day after you return from a work trip should be a holiday. Sleep in, go for a massage, pay bills, do groceries...whatever...just don't put pressure on yourself to get back to work.
FESTIVALS AND EVENTS
If you are very busy (with work or your private life) and are trying to decide whether or not to say yes to a festival/ public reading invite here are some things to consider:
what's the speaker's fee? (In Canada the standard ranges from $125/hour at the very low end to $300/hour)
will they sell books on site? (for tiny community events in particular don't assume this is a given)
what's the event's reputation?
what are the audiences like?
how long is the travel time?
how many on stage events will you do? (Some festivals like the ones in Woody Point, Moose Jaw, and the Cabot Trail are great at offering authors multiple opportunities to appear on stage. The Edinburgh Book Fair was fantastic in this regard. I was only there for one day and they gave me two events.)
Ask your publicist and/or other authors for advice. Don't be afraid to say no. Remember: Saying yes to one thing always means saying no to something else (usually your own writing). Also: It's better for everyone if you say no up front rather than cancel later. Cancellations are a nightmare for festival organizers, most of whom are unpaid volunteers. Don’t be someone else’s nightmare if you can help it.
If you are asked to speak to a group via Skype, FaceTime, or some other tele/video conference software, don’t assume the technology will work. Schools block video chats (and most teachers don’t realize this). And book clubs are very rarely equipped with good sound and video systems (unless they are hosted at a library that long distance conferences with authors all the time). I’m sorry to say that 99% of the time it’s better to say no to virtual requests.
Before accepting a request to adjudicate an award or grant, ask:
how many entries will I have to read?
how long are they?
do I have to give feedback or write comments? if yes, for how many stories and how long should the comments be?
who else is on the jury?
what is the timeline for the work?
what is the compensation and when can I expect to receive it?
It’s worthwhile speaking to former jurors if you’re unsure.
Make it snappy. I got this nugget from Miranda Hill: audiences get fidgety at the 20 minute mark and 10 minutes is the most anyone can stand to listen to an author reading from a book. If I’m told I have a 20 minute slot I usually do a bit of chit-chat for 5 minutes and read for 10. If I’m given 30 minutes and am the only author on stage, I break it up into two readings with chit chat in between and aim for 20 minutes total. No one is going to complain if you shut up a little early, particularly if it means there is time for Q&As.
Practice. And time yourself. Don’t be the selfish git who hogs the mic.
You don’t have to read word-for-word. The reading copies of my books are marked up. I cross out sections that get in the way. I add dialogue tags (he said/ she said) and transition words and skip over small flashbacks. Whatever makes the reading flow smoothly.
Read from the book that is for sale. I heard this story about Margaret Atwood. It might be apocryphal but it’s an important lesson anyway. She goes up to the sales table and chats with the book sellers. Which books have you got? Which ones are you trying to sell more of? And then she chooses her readings accordingly. As authors we are SICK TO DEATH of the book that’s for sale and sometimes we are tempted to read from work-in-progress. But here’s the thing: you’re at the event to flog the book that’s for sale. And no one is going to buy a book if they haven’t heard you read from it. Even if the thing-in-progress you read has them all at the edge of their seat, bawling, they still will not buy the book you didn’t read from.
Speaking of the book sellers: introduce yourself, shake hands, offer to sign left over books.
Writing is a deeply private, introverted activity. Promoting a book is an intensively public and extroverted activity. The switch is jarring and even as an extrovert, I am always emotionally drained, mildly depressed, and vaguely agoraphobic, after intense periods of being "on." Know your own limits and respect them. Maybe that means hermiting in your hotel room before going on stage. Maybe that means saying no thank you to the signing table or the cocktail party/ author reception/ group dinner/ trivia night. It's okay to skip out on the extras. As my mother likes to say: don't be a hero; do the minimum.
Don’t promise to blurb a book you haven’t read.
If the internet is to be believed, everyone else is scoring bigger book deals, being invited to more events, and way more productive than you. In the spring I saw online that Michael Redhill (who had just won a Giller and was busy jet setting around to events) had just submitted the manuscript of his next novel to the publisher. How did he find the time? I wondered, while promptly feeling like the worst and laziest writer on the planet. Soon afterward, at a festival, I was chatting with Michael and he said he'd been working on said manuscript for years. What looked instantaneous and effortless online was actually a project long in the making.
One the most nourishing parts of this year has been candid conversations with other authors. It’s the best cure for envy because you very quickly realize that everyone is beset by all the same anxieties. Don't let comparison steal your joy. Everyone has their own struggles.
The Fall is hell; brace yourself. It’s the busiest time in the industry, when all the big festivals happen and all the major literary prizes are announced. It’s also when a flurry of new books hit the shelves. Everyone with a book out is stressed and on edge between September and mid to late November. And every long or short list you don’t make is a kick in the teeth. All the while you are promoting a book and going to festivals (because ‘tis the season!) and expected to look happy and unconcerned. So practice your happy and unconcerned face in the mirror and remember that everyone is in the same boat, forsaken by god, taking on water, and listing in the storm.
I’m going to go out on a short limb and say that even the authors who are winning all the awards are having a rough go of it this season. Because these short lists mean a whole ton of travel and a bazillion appearances all of which only seems fun until you have to endure it yourself (see above re: depression/ agoraphobia). Spare a thought for the writers with new babies and small children who they must leave at home (or travel with while breast feeding!).
There’s no cure for the Fall. You just have to, as Tyra Banks says, model through it.
IT’S OKAY TO FEEL BAD
Year one will be excruciating. You put your heart and soul and hopes and pipe dreams into your first book. You dote on this book in private for years. And then it goes on sale and every loved one, nemesis, fremeny, and stranger can read and critique or (worse) ignore it. Every festival and list and review is another chance for rejection. Well meaning friends will demand to know why your book isn’t at Chapters/ Costco/ in the window display and you’ll want to hide under the nearest table. This year I have felt simultaneously on top of the world and incredibly vulnerable. Vulnerable to strangers. It’s surreal and complicated. Take heart. It’s like this for every author. Feeling awful is totally normal.
Tom read nearly 80 books this year too (including the Bible and the Koran) and when he saw that I tallied up my favourites, he went back and choose his ten best reads. The first pick, he claims, is unbiased but if you live with an author you are contractual obligated to say nice things about their work so add salt as needed. Here is Dr. Math’s top 10 in no particular order:
The Boat People - Sharon Bala
White Teeth - Zadie Smith
The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy
Wolf Hall - Hillary Mantel
On Beauty - Zadie Smith
Runaway - Alice Munro
Do Not Say We Have Nothing - Madeleine Thien
The Waste Land - T.S. Eliot
The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
Birds of America - Lorrie Moore
I read 77 books this year. Here are my favourites:
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Most surprising read of the year.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Book I should have read years ago and will definitely read again.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. One of my favourite books of all time. Full stop.
The Power by Naomi Alderman. Most empowering read of the year.
Next year for sure by Zoey Leigh Peterson. Lovely mediation on friendship.
Journey Prize 30. March was also the month I read and re-read all the Journey Prize stories (all 100 of them!) and the anthology contains the absolute very best of the pile. Shashi Bhat who won this year is a dream of a writer and she’s got a book in the works so BE EXCITED!
Gender Failure by Rae Spoon and Ivan Coyote. One of the two most delightful reads of the year.
Trust No Aunty by Maria Qamar. Speaking of delightful, this coffee table book/ memoir/ survival guide fits the bill. HARD RECOMMEND.
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. I got this book by accident! I went to the library meaning to get a Penelope Fitzgerald and somehow ended up with one of my favourite books of the year.
Something for Everyone by Lisa Moore. Funniest read of the year.
Small Change by Elizabeth Hay. Chilling and insightful book about friendship.
Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantell. Quite possibly the most skillfully written book of all time. As a reader, it is a feast. As a writer, it is a masterclass.
An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim. The Time Traveller’s Wife BUT BETTER.
I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Sharya. ME TOO, VIVEK. ME TOO.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. The platonic ideal of a beach read.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Dropping back into this post to add this book, my last read of the year, and one of the very, very best.
Y’all, The Boat People was in THE NEW YORK TIMES!
THE NEW YORK TIMES! The Boat People was featured in the December 9th issue’s “new in paperback” section alongside Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey and a non-fiction about the roots of the American asylum system. Appropriate, n’est-ce pas?
The American paperback hit shelves this month and along with it came a small resurgence in publicity stateside, including the NYT mention, a lovely review in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and some blog love too.
And late last month, LitHub asked me to curate a list of “lesser known Canadian books.” So I wrote a short essay and threw together a book list, all the while cringing at the thought of the title LESSER KNOWN CANADIAN BOOKS AS CHOSEN BY TOTALLY UNKNOWN CANADIAN. But when the piece came out I laughed out loud (and totally approved) of the title they chose. The Great White North Isn’t So White.
And speaking of lists, it is end-of-the-year round up season and The Boat People was one of several books on the CBC’s Best Canadian Fiction of 2018 list, 49th Shelf’s best fiction of the year, and the best books of the year list on Pickle Me This.
Back in April I did a Q&A with a group of highschool students. How much do you make from a book, they asked. Is being a novelist a realistic career choice? I think the teachers were slightly mortified but I found the candid questions refreshing. Frankly, these teenagers were a hell of a lot more pragmatic than most adults.
The answers, by the way, are: not much and no, not really. As I told the teenagers, most writers have day jobs. Because even if you hit a jackpot like the Giller, you have to make that windfall last until you sell the next book. And books take years to write (I started The Boat People in 2013, 4.5 years before it came out). Advances, even when they are generous, don't amount to a whole lot when spread out over the gestation and infancy of a book.
Those of us who are full time writers usually have a bunch of side hustles and income streams. This list is not exhaustive. It is limited to my own experience and what others have told me.
If you’re lucky, your publishing house will give you an advance. A small house might give you zero dollars or a thousand or $500. Someone recently told me that a generous advance for a debut novelist is $20K. I don’t know if this is true. In any case, these numbers assume you make a Canadian sale. There is more to be made on an American sale and then of course there are other international English-language sales, plus translations.
I think everyone should at least try to get a good agent because agents know everything and have an incentive to get you the best possible deal.
An advance is an advance against earnings. Meaning you have to sell enough books to earn out your advance before you see any royalties. Royalties are usually very detailed with a whole mess of percentages. I like to think of it as 10% of the cover price but that’s not really true. There are different percentages for all kinds of things. E-book percentages for example can be renegotiated after two years (because e-book sales are ever changing!) This is also why agents are helpful. They can spot contractual bullshit at a 100 paces.
FILM/ TV RIGHTS
People seem to think every book is being made into a movie (or at least that my book will be) to which I say: don’t hold your breath.
Writers get paid when a book gets optioned (which can happen several times over without a movie getting made) and then if the movie gets made, they get paid again for the rights and possibly also if they have some kind of role in the production. You really need an agent to get any of this done and I know nothing except that even getting an option seems pretty good because it’s cash money. And that is what we are all here for. CASH. MONEY. MAKE IT RAIN.
Some writers are on the speaker’s circuit, meaning they give key note addresses and speeches at conferences and fundraisers and large public events. The Massey Lectures are one example. But there are lots of other opportunities too (for example, law firm lunch and learns). I was asked to give a speech at Pier 21 in the spring as part of their author series and that’s when I signed up with a speaking agent. Since then my agent has found me other opportunities and looking forward to 2019, I can see that it’s going to be a key part of my income. The great thing about these events is there’s almost always a book sale table. Which means….royalties + speaker’s fee. These events are totally exhausting and hard work but they are also a great way to pay the bills.
Providing feedback on someone’s manuscript or short story takes time and intense creative energy but it can also be a good income stream. I personally get a lot of joy out of helping other authors improve their manuscripts. (Get in touch if you’d like a quote. I’m restarting my MS evaluation service in the new year.)
Festivals, panels, public readings, etc. The going rate ranges between $125-$300/hour. Sometimes non-writers get huge eyes when they hear this number but let’s get real: these events aren’t lucrative. There’s usually so much travel involved that it works out to pennies on the hour. You do events to sell books, get your name out, and meet readers and other writers. The pay cheque is appreciated and necessary, don’t get me wrong, but events aren’t money spinners.
If it’s part of a festival you’ll probably get the per hour rate (say $200) but if you’re teaching a workshop in some other context (say at home for your Writer’s Guild) you can set whatever rate you like. You’re the boss. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m planning to teach a workshop in the new year. Stay turned.
Some writers work as professors or instructors in MFA programs. Some teach out of their homes or lead one-off classes and workshops. Some act as mentors to emerging authors. Teaching can be a key part of an author’s income but again, income varies greatly depending on whether you are a tenured professor or sessional slave labour.
Grants and prizes all need juries. In my experience the going rate varies a lot but no matter what, the hourly rate is never going to be great. Some proportion of jury duty is just unpaid labour. You do it for good karma or to help get your name/ the name of your book out into the world. Or you do it because you admire the prize and are honoured to be involved. Or you do it because you respect the other jurors and think you’ll enjoy working with them. Weigh the pros and cons and factor all of it against the time commitment and what else you could be doing in that time (ie. writing).
GRANTS & PRIZES
Grants count as taxable income but most prizes are tax-free! Shortlisted authors sometimes get a cheque too. In both cases it’s a bit like the lottery and while I think everyone should apply to grants, it’s a mistake to count on the money.
Libraries that carry your book are paying a different price to the publishing house than you or I pay at the book shop. So you’re making money on those royalties. But every time someone takes out the book, you could potentially be getting a bit of money for each of those loans too. You have to sign up here.
BOOK CLUBS & CLASS VISITS
Some schools are already set up with a budget for visiting authors and all you have to do is invoice. And some book clubs volunteer a payment. But often this is a case of “we have no money but will you come see us anyway?” You can choose to do this work for free or you can ask to be paid. And if the latter, you can set whatever rate you like. For an hour with a class $200-$250 is what you could expect.
Caveat: If you’re being invited to any event that charges people to attend then you should absolutely be paid.
ARTICLES/ ESSAYS/ WEB CONTENT/ STORIES
Rates vary so, so, so widely. And often I end up writing content for free (if the request comes through my publicist/ I think it’s worth the publicity). Over time, I’ve been doing fewer of these freebies though. It’s demoralizing and unfair to be a professional writer who writes for free.
Writing articles can be a decent side hustle and some authors turn their essays into collections (smart). Some writers have regular columns in print or online publications. Some have an editorial or managerial role. I have no idea what this kind of work pays but it seems like it could be rewarding and fun.
And then there are short stories which we write and try to sell to magazines. It’s never a ton of money. I think the most I ever got for a short story was $350 (for a story that I spent years working on and a whole lot of money submitting to various places that rejected me). Note that you can make more if a story wins a contest but contests usually cost $$$ to enter. (If you’re in NL, the Arts & Letters is free to enter and lucrative if you win)
Writer-in-residence programs are usually run out of libraries or schools. You commit to a length of time (say a semester) and in that time you read and comment on the work of emerging authors in the community, meet them individually, maybe give a public talk and teach a couple of workshops and in exchange you get a pay cheque. The idea that is you also have time to work on your own project. But you usually have to pay for your own flight and accommodations so unless the residency is in the place where you already live, it’s worth scrutinizing the economics.
This might seem like a long list but the fact is that most of these items don’t come with a big pay cheque. It’s almost always a case of cobbling things together and crossing your fingers for a windfall (grant/ prize). Some months are feast and others are famine and literally I never know from one year to the next what my total income will be. It really helps to have a sponsor or a trust fund or a life partner with a secure 9-5 or be comfortable living like an undergraduate (this is my theory for why all Canadian writers own the same rug). It also helps to be frugal and diligent about money.
In addition, we all perform a metric ton of unpaid labour. Blurbs, reference letters, interviews, book shop readings, travel, writing articles that never see the light of day, having your brain picked over coffee…. And that’s on top of the administrivia that comes with running your own business: emails, chasing down cheques, tracking finances, publicity and self promotion, writing grant applications and job proposals, submitting stories to publications and contests, waiting on hold with CRA….
So it also helps to be comfortable with the word no. You have to say no a lot. Because in addition to making enough money, you have to also set aside time to do the thing we are really here to do: WRITE BOOKS. Oh yeah…that.
Rebecca wrote this dark comedy of a blog post recently and I was all “SING IT, SISTER.” It’s about the indignities she has endured in her years as a writer. Rebecca has been writing and publishing longer than I have so she’s had to grin and bear more, but I share indignity #4 on her list.
Anyway, like Rebecca, I’ve mostly had wonderful experiences and I know I’m incredibly lucky to even be a writer and have work published but there are also moments that make me want to shake my fist. Please enjoy some dark humour…
In March I adjudicated a short story competition. Reading stories and choosing the winner was a pleasure but then the organization tried to scam me out of my payment with the old “the cheque is in the mail” routine. It was not in the mail. Not even after I sent several emails. And then there was radio silence and I started to get seriously concerned. Fortunately, the organization was the PEI Writers’ Guild and I have an acquaintance from PEI. She intervened and then the cheque really was in the mail.
In April I took part in the book club at my local museum (The Rooms in St. John’s). People paid $15 each to attend. The evening was a delight. We had a really big and wonderful audience and the interviewer was fantastic. But the payment took months and several emails on my part. If I don’t pay the plumber within 30 days he charges interest. But some organizations seem to think writers don’t deserve to get paid on time. Anyway, good thing we have Status of the Artist legislation, huh?
Speaking of the Status of the Artist blah-blah-blah, remember this?
An organization asked me to give a key note speech at their event. Key note speeches take time, effort, and stress. I wrote back a very polite email (which I put a lot of thought into) where I laid out why I couldn’t work for free, how to get in touch with my agent and negotiate a rate, and then listed a couple of other much cheaper options for how I could help them out. Think I got the courtesy of a reply? Nope.
A group of writers asked me to teach them a private workshop for free. LOL.
FOR REAL THOUGH…WHY THE HELL DO PEOPLE THINK I WANT TO WORK FOR FREE? FOR THE RECORD: I DO NOT.
Once I was on a panel where all the authors were asked to prepare a 10 minute reading. One of the authors yammered on for about 25 minutes while the other author and I stared dolefully at each other. Finally the moderator cut him off (he hadn’t even gotten to his reading yet!). Then we did a Q&A and he kept trying to hog all the air time. Who am I kidding? Of course this happened more than once. And to paraphrase Rebecca, it’s not all male authors of a certain age but it is ALWAYS male authors of a certain age.
Writers are forever being picked up at airports and driven places by strangers. Sometimes it’s innocuous and you make pleasant small talk. Just as often it’s a bloody nightmare. Once, I got into a fight with a driver about “Hilary’s emails.” I hope he wasn’t expecting a tip. In New York, a driver with a Spanish accent complained about “Muslim foreigners.” He didn’t get a tip either. Once, soon after the miscarriage of justice that was the Coulton Bushie trial, a driver talked about why “Indian boys” deserve to get shot.
Hello older man I’ve just met. Please remove your hand from my upper back. Please stop taking every opportunity to randomly touch me as we stand at this registration table making awkward small talk while we wait for our name tags. I’m going to stand waaaaaay over here now and go out of my way to avoid you for the rest of this literary festival.
At a big event, in a room of 500 people where everyone had a copy of my book but most of them hadn’t read it yet, a woman stood to ask a question and shamelessly gave away the ending while the rest of the audience shouted her down. (Not the first time it’s happened either.)
Nasty emails from readers. Yes, really.
I agreed to take part in an event with another author. After the arrangements were made and plane tickets were bought, I found out it was an unmoderated conversation. For an hour. With an author I had previously met once for five minutes in an elevator. I happen to like this author very much and I think the feeling is mutual but it’s really unfair to make authors act as their own moderators. Promoting your own work and moderating a conversation are two very different skills and it’s impossible to move back and forth seamlessly. Fortunately, there were only 7 people in the audience.
Once after I’d given a 45 minute speech that I’d spent a very long time researching and preparing, a man in the audience said: “I haven’t read your book but let me tell you why everything you’ve just said is problematic.” LOL. When it was my turn to reply, I very politely eviscerated him to audience applause. Come at me, bro. But you best not miss.
This has been a MASSIVE year for my writing group, The Port Authority. In the past 12 months four of us have published new novels. FOUR. Jamie Fitzpatrick’s The End of Music just got a much-deserved and wonderful review in Malahat and our books are duking it out next February during NL Reads. Melissa Barbeau’s The Luminous Sea has been getting all kinds of lovely buzz and landing on nightstands across the country. Susan Sinnott’s bestselling novel, Catching the Light is a finalist for the White Pine Award. And long before all of this, we all, along with several other authors, including the talented Carrie Ivardi, published a short story collection called Racket.
Susan, Carrie, Jamie, Melissa, and I will be reading from our work at Broken Books on Duckworth Street. If you’re in St. John’s on Tuesday, December 4th at 7:30pm, come by. It’s free and open to the public and we’d love to see you there.
THE BOAT PEOPLE has been long-listed for the Aspen Words Literary Prize! Awarded annually, it’s given to “an influential work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture). This is a pretty new prize, only in its second year. The inaugural winner was Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (a book I read back in January and adored).
I was on a plane to Toronto last Monday afternoon, blissfully unaware that the team at Doubleday US had even submitted my book for consideration, when the long-list was announced. I landed to the happy email from my publicist and then I looked up the competition and was even happier. Because look at those books! In particular, Brother by David Chariandy, one of my favourite reads from last year.
The short-list will be announced in February. Until then, fingers crossed!
Fall is here and with it the busiest season for authors with new books! I'll be zipping around the country appearing at festivals and book shops and events from now until the end of November. I'm trying very hard to keep my events page up-to-date so you can keep up with me there.
This month I'll be in Guelph for the festival at Eden Mills, doing a reading on Sunday, September 9th and sharing the stage with Kim Thuy and Dr. Brian Goldman. We'll be talking about empathy, among other things. A couple of weekends later I'll be at Word on the Street in Toronto doing two events: an unmoderated one hour conversation with Catherine Hernandez (author of Scarborough) on Saturday, September 22nd and a half hour reading and Q&A on Sunday, September 23rd. And at the very end of the month you can catch be at the Cabot Trail Writers Festival in Nova Scotia. I'll be on stage three or four times that weekend and will also be running a writing workshop. Full details for September are here. Please come out if you can. I love meeting readers.
Gentle reader, do you love a book and/or its author? Do you want to support said book/ author? There are so many ways! Author Amy Stuart blogged about this very thing on her own website and it inspired me to write a post script.
1. Obviously if you can afford it, buy copies for all your friends and family. Give the book out to random strangers at Christmas time while shouting "ho, ho, ho" in a jolly voice.
2. Borrow the book from your library. Writers get royalties for every copy the library buys. And there's also a system that tracks how often a book is borrowed and we get a bit of money for each of those loans as well.
3. If a book isn't available, ask your librarian to order it in. This year, I've taken to ordering books that have flown under the radar. Small press authors, writers who are trans, brown, black, queer, graphic novelists...these are the authors whose books are less likely to get attention. (Don't be fooled by the few of us who you see in the spotlight. We are the minority of the minority.)
4. And speaking of libraries! If you've bought a book and loved it but aren't a hoarder like me, donate it to your local library. You might even get a tax receipt.
5. As Amy said, good reviews on Amazon, Chapters, Barnes and Nobel, and GoodReads are the gifts that keep on giving.
6. Do you have teacher/ professor friends? Maybe just slip a copy of the book into their hands and whisper: curriculum. You'll be doing the author and the students a favour.
7. Come to our events. We love meeting readers.
8. If you really love a book, don't be shy about telling the author.
And now a story. One evening in the spring, I was waiting to deplane in the St. John's airport, feeling emotionally and physically wrung out from book promotion and travel, missing home and my mathemagician something fierce, cross-eyed from a headache, and desperate for the loo. And I was feeling sorry for myself. It's only May, I thought. How am I ever going to keep up this pace until Christmas? Wah, wah, wah. A tiny violin played a sad song for me. And then a total stranger with the face of an angel stood up from her seat, looked me right in the eyes, and said (apropos of nothing): "I loved your book, by the way." In that moment it felt like the kindest words ever spoken. Before I became a writer, I was meek about reaching out to authors. I only did it twice. Don't be shy. You have no idea how much it means, those four magical words: "I loved your book."
The truth is that I'm mildly terrified of listening/ watching/ reading my interviews. So it took me a few days to get up the courage to watch this conversation that aired on TVO's The Agenda a couple of Thursdays ago. But there was nothing to fear. Nam Kiwanuka is a wonderful interviewer who asks astute questions and listens patiently while first-time authors (with stars in their eyes ...omg THE AGENDA!...total nerd girl dream come true!) give long and meandering answers.
You can watch the whole interview (26 minutes) here. Despite my complete inability to give brief answers, Nam kept us on track and we managed to cover a lot of ground. We talked about the three points of view, research, the political situation in Sri Lanka that led to war, and the novels I turned to for guidance. But we also went over some difficult and personal emotional terrain and you know... that's not a place I would have willingly gone to with just any interviewer. But I knew Nam's work and I trusted her completely and that is when you get an ace interview.
Reflecting on our conversation and her own experiences, Nam later wrote an opinion piece that is well worth a read. Stand out lines: What they’re running from is worse than what they’re running to....If you’ve never been in that situation — if you’re never experienced civil war, unrest, or persecution — you’re lucky." These truths bear repeating. They bear screaming from roof tops. Children and adults should be made to write these lines on endless chalkboards because for some reason too many people haven't grasped these lessons yet.
Nothing sets my teeth on edge like hysterical headlines and pundits who wring their hands about the so-called "migrant crisis." People coming here for safety? That is not a crisis. Watching your neighbour get doused in petrol and set on fire. THAT is a crisis.
If you think people fleeing rape and torture and death to come to the peaceful country where you are lucky to live is a crisis, you are a moron.
I've been talking a lot about empathy this year but the real problem is a lack of imagination. Too many people are unwilling to ask themselves the question: what if it was me? What if I was born into a country at war? What if I lived in daily fear for my life? What if I fled hell only to arrive in a country whose leaders decided that my life wasn't worth a few votes? It's laziness that prevents people from putting themselves in another person's shoes. Do yourself a favour. Don't be a lazy git.
Congratulations: Shashi, Greg, Alicia, Liz, Philip, Jason, Aviva, Rowan, Sofia, Jess, Iryn, and Carly! Look at these stars, the long listed authors whose stories will appear in the Journey Prize 30.
Congratulations to: The Dalhousie Review, Pulp Literature (x2), The New Quarterly (x2), Event, The Malahat Review, Prism International, PrairieFire, This Magazine (x2), and the CVC Anthology Series (x2).
Zoey, Kerry, and I judged the stories blind meaning it was only after the decisions were made that we got to see the authors' names and the publications that had put their stories forward. After all our debates and nit picking over theme and character and form, all these particulars that were, at the time, divorced from our knowledge of the writers themselves, the big reveal was a joyous experience. There were many exclamations, especially when we learned that one writer and one publication had made the list twice (Greg if you are reading this, we all agreed that Pulp should give you a free subscription for life).
I've adjudicated a few short story competitions now but I've never been prouder to see a list of winners. Yeah. Winners. Listen. It was A FEAT for these writers to get on the long list. First, they had to write a story (difficult enough!). Then they had to find the story a home (you can imagine all the rejection along the way). Then the publications had to decide that out of all the stories published that year, their particular story was the one to put forward. And then the story came to us, the jury.
Zoey, Kerry, and I are tough customers and there were many wonderful stories that did not make the cut (some that I still recall with great admiration). So yes, once again, congrats to the winners:
Alicia, Aviva, Carly, Greg, Iryn, Jason, Jess, Liz, Philip, Rowan, Sashi, and Sofia.
The Journey Prize - Canada's biggest and most lucrative annual short story award - turns 30 this year and I was fortunate enough to be on the jury along with authors (and all around wonderful human beings) Kerry Clare and Zoey Leigh Peterson. The long-listed authors and their stories will be announced on Tuesday, August 7th. Watch this space.
How the award works
In January/ February, magazines and publications choose up to three of the best stories by emerging authors that they published in the previous year. The stories are sent to McClelland & Stewart who administer the award (not to be confused with the Writer's Trust of Canada who give the award out and are responsible for the hoopla surrounding the ceremony). It's actually my Canadian editor Anita Chong and assistant editor Joe Lee who do much of the thankless, painstaking, administrative work. They are stars.
M&S hires the jury and we all read every single one of the stories. And then we the jury discuss and debate and re-read and re-consider and eventually we narrow it down to the long-list, all of which are published in the Journey Prize anthology. I'm so pleased for these authors because I know what it means to make the anthology. And it's a gold star for the publications that nominated them too. Let's take a moment to tip our hats to those magazines and literary journals - staffed mostly by volunteers working long hours on shoestring budgets. They are the corner stone of Canadian literature, the first rung on the ladder and their existence makes so many of our careers possible.
This year's jury
I lucked out with my fellow jurors. Kerry Clare (who has written about her Journey Prize experience here) and Zoey Leigh Peterson are careful readers and came to the job with a spirit of openness that made healthy and respectful discussion and debate possible. We listened to each other. We kept open minds. None of us assumed we knew better. We gave the job the respect and attention it deserved and were willing to re-read. Over and over and over. The things Kerry and Zoey taught me about reading, are lessons I carry with me today. They have made me a more thoughtful reader and probably a better writer. And I'm proud of the anthology we curated. Journey Prize 30. It's a stunner.
Subscription boxes are so trendy right now and with good reason. Who doesn't want to receive a themed box of surprise goodies in the mail every month? And now a new Canadian service, called Book Box Love, is offering a monthly subscription service for book worms.
I was thrilled when they selected The Boat People for their inaugural box which went out to readers earlier this month along with: a cinnamon candle, a gorgeous passport case handmade by Knotted Nest (with fabric chosen especially to match the cover...how nice is that?!), and decadent coconut bites by Golden Ticket Candy. Also: a handwritten postcard from yours truly. Because packages are incomplete without handwritten notes.
I got a kick out the curation for July's box. Cinnamon and coconut...they couldn't have paired the book with better items. Fun fact: Sri Lanka is the only country where cinnamon grows natively. That's what my great uncle, a world cinnamon expert, says anyway. (In fact we call him Cinnamon Uncle....mostly because when you are Lankan you have approximately 357 uncles and aunts and it's impossible to learn all their names) Anyway, Wikipedia has other opinions about cinnamon's ancestry which you may choose to believe or ignore (I joke. I joke. Don't @ me Indians, Bengalis, and Burmese!)
And then of course coconuts are used for everything in Sri Lanka. Coconut oil - good for hair, skin, cooking, and medicine. Coconut water - good for cooling the body and upset stomachs. I've got serving spoons made from coconuts. Coconut. It's the uber fruit.
Everything in the box is made in Canada by small artists or artisans. The July box with The Boat People went out to subscribers earlier this month but there are still a few left if you want in on the fun. Sales are now open for the August box and you can learn more and subscribe on their website. And finally, I did an interview with Book Box Love, which you can read here on their website.
I have a very old story newly out in the summer issue of Maisonneuve Magazine, which is on stands now. Mutton Curry was written in the winter of 2011 when I was taking an evening class with Jessica Grant. That class was where I learned to write well and Mutton Curry was the first truly decent short story I ever wrote. It won the Arts & Letters Award the following year and later got an honourable mention in a Glimmer Train contest. Still, it took a very long time to find the story a home (7 years!) but here it is. And holy cats! Check out the photo! Photographer Jennie Williams shot it back in April (when it was still cold here; yes that is a winter coat) but I didn't expect it to be so...prominent!
Recently a fellow writer sent me Submittable's e-newsletter. At the very bottom, after all the links to articles and notices, there were two lists. The first was the names of writers who had had the most number of rejections that month. The second was the list of authors whose pieces had been accepted that month. Of the five successful authors, four were also on the "most rejected" list. That is not a coincidence.
I know I always harp on about this but I'm going to sing my song again: submit your work! Submit, submit, submit. Rejection is a (frequent) pit stop on the road to acceptance. But it's just that - a pit stop. It is not the final destination.
ps. Mutton Curry is linked to A Drawer Full of Guggums (published in Racket) and to another story I have coming out later this year. If you read Mutton Curry and are wondering what the secret ingredient is in Amma's curry, stay tuned. All will be revealed!
Fellow Canadians, what are we to do? We haven't got congresspeople to pester or votes to cast south of the border. But we have votes and representatives here. And we have a battle to fight: the Safe Third Country agreement. "Under the Safe Third Country Agreement... Canada and the US each declare the other country safe for refugees and close the door on most refugee claimants at the US-Canada border." (source) Those children you've been seeing on the news? Because of this agreement they are not allowed refuge in Canada.
Write to your Member of Parliament (contact info here) and copy the Prime Minister's office (email@example.com). Demand that the Safe Third Country Agreement be scrapped. Be brief. Be polite. Be firm. Dear MP and Prime Minister Trudeau: We have to scrap the Safe Third Country Agreement. America has proven itself an unsafe place for people in need and this agreement we have with them is no longer in the best interests of us or asylum-seekers. Yours in sunny ways, A voter.
America is kidnapping children. Not just any children. Refugee children. The world's most vulnerable children. It is a human rights violation. It is unspeakably cruel. It is a sin in the eyes of any God worth worshipping.
These are not the actions of a safe country. And if we were serious about those apologies we made for the atrocities of our past (the MS St. Louis, the Komagata Maru, residential schools), if they weren't just empty words, then we have to stop pretending otherwise and we must, absolutely must, let refugees who come through the US in.
In grade school we studied WWII. Learning about the genocide and the concentration camps and the way a whole group of people were dehumanized and carted off like cattle, many of us said, very earnestly: "I'd never let that happen." Well now we are adults and guess what? It is happening. We are watching it happen.
You don't need a crystal ball to predict what comes next. Once the borders are well and truly closed and no one new is trying to get into the US, they will turn their attention inward. A Muslim-American internment is on the horizon. America is not a safe country. It is Germany circa 1938. And if you can't see that link then you are being willfully blind and have lost your moral compass (don't @ me. I don't care).
The Canadian Council for Refugees has more information and resources about the Safe Third Country Agreement. Amnesty International Canada has a petition against the agreement that you can sign here. Alex Neve, the Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada has written a heartfelt and cogent argument against the Safe Third Country Agreement and you can read his comments here. The biting and very sensible Drew Brown has more to say on this subject in this article on Vice.
We can't control what happens in another country. But we can make change here. We can keep Canada a safe country. I am not a parent. But I am heartbroken for all these parents and children. These are people in desperate need. These are people just like us.
Or: why talent is overrated.
Sometimes we talk about stories like this: the story is an entity with its own consciousness. The story arrives, via a muse. The story reveals itself as it is being written. Writers are mere scribes.
This airy-fairy, woo-woo, magical thinking is a whole lot of nonsense. Writing isn't magic. It's good old-fashioned hard work. It is sitting your butt in the chair every single day and forcing yourself to do the work. Because trust me about this, if you don’t keep the pump primed, it will not yield a drop.
Sure, there are moments that feel sublime but the movie montage of how a book is made would look really mundane. Writing is a nose stuck in a refugee law text book. It is hours trawling the internet for photos of jail cells and then more hours trying to find the correct combination of words to evoke said jail cells. It is reading over something you thought was insightful and poetic the day before only to discover it has morphed into toxic waste. It is revising a chapter for the tenth time. It is writing the same sentence five different ways and then reading each option out loud. It is chucking months of work and going back to square one. It is persistence and effort with a healthy dose of self-hatred. And most of the time it is also working despite deep uncertainty. Not knowing if the story is any good. Or else, knowing it is not good but hoping it might eventually get better.
Sometimes, because we are often asked and it is difficult to properly describe how stories are invented, we writers revert to supernatural explanations. Harry Potter famously appeared to JK Rowling in a train car. I believe this anecdote because that is how many of my characters have rocked up too. I’ll be tossing and turning with insomnia when a little girl appears out of thin air.
This is called inspiration (1%). Then comes the perspiration (99%). Now I have to make decisions. What’s this little girl’s name, age, and future vocation? Is she introverted or extroverted, a pessimist or optimist? Decisions mean constraints and constraints are important because good writing is precise. You can’t be specific when you are writing about a character if you haven’t nailed down the details. But then the real questions are: What does this character want more than anything? Who far will she go to get it? And for that, I free write pages and pages and pages, most of which will never leave my notebook. From all this random riffing emerges a picture of who the character is and from there the plot evolves.
It does everyone a disservice to suggest there’s a fairy who selectively whispers sweet nothings into the ears of a chosen few. Talent is real and it sure is helpful but it’s highly overrated and not the key ingredient. If you want to be a writer, write. Do the work. I repeat: talent is not necessary. Work is necessary. That’s the 99%.
The newest issue of Riddle Fence is out and I've got a story inside. It's called When the end came and it's probably the most Townie piece I've ever written. I took as many quirky things as I could find in St. John's and shoved them into a story that is ostensibly about quantum computers but is really about anxiety. (Or is about cheeseburgers? YOU BE THE JUDGE)
Are all writers like this? I get preoccupied for short, intense bursts on very specific things and then I work my obsessions out by grappling with them in short stories. When I first started writing, it was around the time that everyone I knew was either pregnant or had very new babies. The anecdotes my friends told me about pregnancy, infertility, and new motherhood were absolutely riveting and of course I shamelessly took a lot of what they shared and funnelled it straight into my work. Butter Tea at Starbucks, Miloslav, Quickening, and Gliding, Weightless (along with a couple more that will never see the light of day) were drafted in these years.
And then I got obsessed with long dead artsy bohemians (the pre-Raphaelites and the Bloomsbury Group). A Drawer Full of Guggums was written during this period along with two other stories that I am personally really proud of but no one wants to publish. (Hello! Will someone please say yes to these stories?)
Right after that, I went through a crucial rite of passage and became obsessed with theoretical physics and wouldn't shut up about black holes and string theory and wave-particle duality. I harangued all Tom's colleagues at dinner parties and forced them to tell me about their research. And then I wrote a bunch of linked stories until I got the physics bug out of my system. When the End Came is the first of the set to make it to print. Hooray! Hopefully this means I can get the other three out there too.
Riddle Fence 29 is beautiful as always. Stand outs for me in this issue are the cover art, Karen Stentaford's three prints, and David Ferry's short story April's Fool. If you're not in St. John's, don't have a subscription, and can't find a copy at your local indie book shop, you can buy a back issues online. Issue 29 should be available to purchase there soon.